Many professional speakers found their businesses wilting when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. James Taylor’s is thriving. He’s broken seven-figure revenue in his business, which he runs with his wife. Unable to log the 300,000 miles of air travel he did last year in 2020, he made a smooth transition to operating virtually that helped him reorganize his business in profitable new ways.
Today, Taylor speaks to business audiences about topics such as “SuperCreativity,” the subject of a book he wrote, and innovation from his home studio in a bucolic town near Edinburgh, Scotland. Sheep graze outside of his window.
Taylor started his career as a professional keynote in 2017, after a career as a manager and agent for a number of Grammy-Award winning artists. He had grown up in a family of musicians—his father and grandfather are jazz musicians—become a jazz drummer himself, and married an award-winning jazz singer, Alison Burns.
After moving to Napa Valley, California and starting an online music school, Taylor began getting invitations to speak at more and more conferences. He started saying yes, and found he really enjoyed getting up on stage.
“It felt like coming home to me,” he says. “Speaking isn’t the same as performing but there are a lot of commonalities about connecting with the audience. There’s also a love of being on the road.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Taylor generated about 70% of his income from in-person speeches for corporate clients. The rest came from events he organizes, such as his International Speakers Summit, his Speakers U course on how to become a highly compensated global keynote that he introduced in 2018, and a publishing business he runs with Alison.
That changed last February, when he barely made it out of Riyadh, where he was doing a talk for a soft drinks company, on the last flight before the border closed because of the COVID-19 crisis
Taylor stopped doing in-person events, at least for the time being, after that trip and transitioned to an all-virtual career, almost overnight. (He’ll be sharing his story at a free community panel discussion about high-revenue, one-person businesses in the U.K. and Australia on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 1 p.m. Eastern time.)
Here are some of his strategies for keeping his business thriving.
Embrace AI. Before Taylor presents to an audience he uses artificial intelligence tools from IBM to analyze his audience. “As a speaker, I want to ensure my presentation connects with the audience on a very deep, emotional level,” he says.
To that end, if he’s giving a speech to an association—say it’s made up of Realtors—he’ll ask for the Twitter account of that group. His AI tools will give him a psychometric profile of the attendees.
For a smaller event, he’ll ask the organizers for the Twitter handles of three people who are indicative of the audience and feed some of their posts into the AI tool. He’s use that information to create a speech that touches on their concerns. “It tells me about the audience overall—what is important to them, what are their needs and values,” he says.
Go high tech. Taylor knows his corporate clients well, and, when he took his business online, understood they would be expecting the highest quality virtual events.
At his home in Scotland, he set up a studio, equipped with five cameras, elaborate lighting and green screens, where he could deliver events with the highest level of polish. He also embraced technologies such as augmented reality, to add special effects that borrow from the live events and gaming worlds.
As he appeared at virtual events, he realized he needed to rethink how he was making presentations. He focused more on communicating from the waist up, given that the audience can’t see him walking around on a stage, and began paying attention to his facial expressions and gestures more.
“I’m not competing with other speakers,” he says. “I’m competing with Netflix and your social media feed. I have to be much more visual.”
Taylor makes sure he looks just as polished as he would in person. When he’s doing an event for a big company, for instance, he’ll make sure that his pocket square and tie match the colors of its logo, so he’s “on brand.” And he invests in extra touches, like stage makeup. “When you shoot in 4k, you have to get 4k makeup,” he says.
In some cases, he appears at virtual events via hologram, Peter Diamandis-style, a trend he believes will be increasingly important. “After COVID, you will start to see more of the hologram keynote,” he says.
Stay open to new opportunities. Although Taylor primarily delivered keynote speeches when he did in-person events, once COVID arrived, he got more invitations to be a virtual emcee for one-day conferences and other online events.
“They need someone to pull the whole thing together,” says Taylor. “They need it to flow. I’m the face of that.”
Taylor gave these events a try, and discovered he really enjoyed them. He has found that he can do more virtual events in a week than in-person ones, which might require 10 hours or more of travel to get there.
While Taylor hesitated to do more than one or two keynotes in a year, now that he’s transitioned to doing more virtual emceeing, “I wouldn’t’ want to do more than five in a week,” he jokes. Some virtual emcees he knows do two or three events a day.
Speaking at online events has made his business more profitable. That’s true even though his in-person speaking gigs pay $ 10,000 to $ 30,000 each. He discovered he could get paid more after being accepted to the speakers’ bureaus that, he says, arrange 70% of better paying gigs in his field.
“Even though on average, the virtual keynote fee is 30% less, you’re saving all of that time on travel and can do multiple events in a week,” he notes.
Find new ways to connect with the audience. When Taylor does in-person speaking events, he relied on clues like laughter from the audience to guide his performance. Some of that gets lost on the screen, he finds.
“You can’t feel the energy the same way with a virtual audience,” he says. “You have to do interactivity in a slightly different way.”
Taylor now relies more on elements like polling and word clouds to make events more interactive. “Good teachers do this instinctively,” he says.
Deliver the total package. When Taylor prepares for an online event, he relies on a team of contractors to tackle administrative details like setting up pre-event calls with clients and create marketing collateral, like graphics and videos. He also found a photographer in Astoria, New York who specializes in doing virtual photoshoots that look like they were shot on location. “Technology, when it’s done well, should disappear,” says Taylor.
Taylor’s business may look very different next year, particularly if there is a coronavirus vaccine. “In 2021, all signs are that live, in-person events are coming back,” he says. “Now I’m looking at opportunity costs. Do I fly to Mumbai to do that keynote? Or do I do three virtual speeches?”
At the same time, he’s mindful of the risks of a business that depends too heavily on in-person speaking. “I don’t want the in-person to be more than 40% of my revenue,” he says.
Fortunately, he’s found that he has many options. Each speech he gives generates 2-3 other bookings. “The more you speak, the more you get booked to speak,” he says. And if you’re someone who feels like he’s coming home when stepping onto a stage, that’s an exciting way to live.